As the Arab Spring went sour, country after country in the Middle East went from protest and nascent democracy to strife and even civil war. Yet one part of the region seemed relatively untouched: the Palestinian arena. This calm seemed particularly surprising, as many observers long pointed to the Palestinians’ unsuccessful national aspirations as the source of much of the region’s instability.
This lull may not last, however. Two movements dominate Palestinian politics: Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group and political movement that rules Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) that runs the West Bank. Both are on the ropes, and the failure of either—even Hamas—could make a bad situation even worse.
Let’s start with the West Bank, where Mahmoud Abbas reigns. Abbas has been Palestinian president and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for over a decade as well as the leader of Fatah, the revolutionary group created by Yasir Arafat that for decades dominated the Palestinian national movement. Abbas’s elected term in office ended in January 2009, but he has unilaterally extended it. Putting aside this basic illegitimacy, Abbas has proven a weak leader. He lacks Arafat’s charisma and revolutionary accomplishments. Under his leadership, corruption continues to flourish, and he represses dissent of all kinds on the West Bank. He is only deemed a “moderate” because of his pro-U.S. position, not because of his embrace of democracy.
Abbas is also elderly: he turned 80 this March, and his chain smoking bodes ill for his future. Abbas also lacks a clear successor, and the West Bank is rife with rumors over what comes next. There may be a struggle for power should he step down. The good news (and the bad news) is that instead of a struggle, many titles—Fatah leader, PLO chairman, and so on—may go to different people. This may avoid bloodshed, but the result will be an even weaker and more divided Palestinian leadership on the West Bank.
The biggest problem of the moderates is that they have no vision of victory to give to the Palestinian people.
The biggest problem of the moderates is that they have no vision of victory to give to the Palestinian people. How will they lead the Palestinians to a state of their own? Since the early 1990s they hitched their wagon to the peace process star. Over 20 years later, this dream is bankrupt. Negotiations are in shambles, and the Israeli settler presence on the West Bank grows. Efforts to go to the UN and the ICC have led to a few symbolic successes but nothing that changes the situation for Palestinians on the ground. Not surprisingly, younger Palestinians see little reason beyond patronage to march under Fatah’s banner.
Hamas should benefit from all this weakness, but it has problems of its own. Hamas emerged out of Gaza’s Muslim Brotherhood, and with the Brotherhood apparently ascendant after the 2010 Arab Spring, Hamas looked forward to gaining broader regime support throughout the Middle East. Now it sees only isolation. The Brotherhood as a whole is under siege in much of the Muslim world. Most important, the Brotherhood lost power next door in Egypt in 2013 when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and harshly cracked down on the Islamist movement. As part of this crackdown, Sisi’s government shut down the tunnel network that had sustained Gaza’s economy and otherwise tried to increase the isolation of Gaza to the point that Israeli leaders even urged Cairo to ease up. According to a May 2015 report from the World Bank, Gaza’s unemployment is the highest in the world at 43 percent. Nearly 80 percent of Gaza’s population receives some kind of social assistance, and nearly 40 percent of them still fall below the poverty line. Hamas also lost politically as well as economically as these problems call into question Hamas’s ability to govern. Discontent is growing within its military wing, and jihadists with ideologies more like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are gaining popularity.
As Gaza economy tumbled from the Egyptian blockade and Israeli pressure, Hamas tried to hand off the mess to its rival the Palestinian Authority. Hamas agreed to reconciliation and accepted temporary ceasefires with Israel in the hope that the PA would nominally run Gaza and thus extricate Hamas from its failed governing experiment. The PA, however, realized that it would not exercise true power in Gaza and preferred to watch Hamas founder, even if it meant Gaza’s people continued to suffer.
In the past, Hamas would try to escape the trap by striking Israel: this increased its legitimacy among diehards, and the resulting Israeli response brought Palestinians together. War, alas, is still on the table but it is more difficult than before. Gazans are sick of war, and with fewer tunnels to smuggle weapons Hamas is also less able to prosecute it effectively.
With crises raging throughout the Middle East, it is tempting to ignore the Palestinians and focus on Syria, Iraq, and other urgent matters. Yet neglect could be disastrous.
With crises raging throughout the Middle East, it is tempting to ignore the Palestinians and focus on Syria, Iraq, and other urgent matters. Yet neglect could be disastrous. As we’ve learned the hard way, government weakness generates a host of problems in the Middle East. If both the PA and Hamas weaken, new actors—including ones far more radical than Hamas such as Islamic State-like jihadists—may gain traction in Gaza. Iran, whose ties to Hamas frayed when they picked different sides in the Syria conflict, may gain more access as a desperate Hamas looks for funding and weapons.
If the United States, Israel, and other countries want more peaceful voices to win out in the long term, several steps are necessary. Encouraging internal reform within the PA is a vital first step. Because the current PA structures are personalized and weak, they offer leaders little legitimacy and few means of delivering good governance. Also vital is reinvigorating the peace process. Pro-Western voices need to be able to make a credible argument that negotiations, not violence, can lead to a Palestinian state.